Meeting Edith was going to be an exciting, overwhelming and especially an otherworldly experience for me. She is an Austrian born Jew of the same age with my country Romania: 102 years. And she has an incredibly touching and shivering story involving food and the importance of passing down and archiving recipes that feed your body and your soul. Therefore I felt immensely honoured to have been introduced to her and to have been welcomed into her London home.
It is 6th of February 2020, a crisp yet sunny day in Walthamstow. I am so enchanted to pass by the Walthamstow market, known to be the longest street market in Europe. As I come out of the tube station and cross a small park, the first indoor shop on the right hand side of the street is an ‘international food grocery’ which is well known within the Romanian community. I am sure I will find here our traditional Romanian sweet bread – called Cozonac in our language. The shop sells food from many eastern European countries and Turkey, but the Romanian aisle is particular generous. Truth be said, the London borough of Walthamstow is probably home to the largest Romanian community in UK. I pick up a sweet bread filled with walnuts and raisins, packed in a fancy box which works gracefully with the white tulips I already bought from Brixton.
Edith’s corner house rests quietly on a street close to the market. As I enter the classically English door, I walk on a William Morris luxurious wallpaper wrapped corridor, guarded by a few Commedia-del-Arte scenes on old posters. In the first room on the left there is Edith waiting in her armchair. She fits perfectly with this art-deco room designed by her at the beginning of the 80’s with smoky green sittings, walnut brown furniture and impeccably preserved wallpaper designed by the same Walthamstow born William Morris. I keep on staring at the radiant oranges and green foliage on the walls, thinking of how this tropical extravaganza must have brightened the cloudy London weather over the years.
Edith smiles and hugs me even before I am being introduced as the visitor who made the whole way from Romania to meet her. She seems animated by my arrival and she is incredibly delighted with the white tulips I brought for her as if she was long waiting for them. At times her eyes return to the vase checking the presence of the flowers. Albeit this gracious welcoming, I find myself incredibly shy in search for words to start a conversation with someone who has lived such a long and ‘aggravated’ life. I have learned in advance she tells those interested in her long life secret that the mystery of her very old age stands in ‘lots of aggravations’ during her lifetime. She was born in Vienna in 1918 from a Hungarian Jewish father and an Austrian Jewish mother. Close to 1939 she has escaped repression finding refuge to UK. Speaker of four foreign languages, Edith managed enter in the UK on a servant visa and has worked as a nanny for several years before she was able to develop her career appropriate to her formal education in finances.
Edith avoids or she is unable to speak much about herself. During our conversation I find difficult to understand if her memory is blocked on a few specific events or if she holds of memories related to what happened to her and her family. When I asked her how did she managed to help her father out of the Dachau camp and run to America, Edith nods her had up, firmly, saying ‘how do you think?’. I don’t know what to think, I can only imagine. I red quite a few testimonies of Holocaust survivors during my years of research into traumatic memories; I took several interviews of people who have been imprisoned and escaped Romania during the Communism; I have studied accounts of refugees leaving horrors behind. One common experience for all is that humiliation faced in these situations annihilates the ability to communicate the actions that helped them survive. Embodied trauma is lived like a chain around the throat making it impossible to voice sufferance and testify on the events that lead to survival. And those unspoken memories break one’s identity into pieces impossible to reorganise, while testifying to an emphatic witness leads to the ability to ‘see’ your own identity again. I am hopeful though that Edith was able to tell her story during her long life. Proof are her friends helping me today to navigate through her distanced memories and the aged notebook.
For the time being I have to accept that Edith and most of her identity will remain a mystery to me. However she tries to led me to understanding in different ways: she signs with a finger towards her library where I can see a number of old books on medieval history, international history and politics, economics, philosophy. She tells me she was head of department in the School of Economics and that she helped teachers develop their teaching resources and technics by having an emphatic yet rigorous view. Her lovely friends add to her life story telling me she had an interesting route: she used to be involved with a theatre company called Unity Theatre, a company that was born in 1936 in an attempt to bring close contemporary political issues to the working class audiences and to challenge the rising of Nazism, Fascism or to illustrate the struggles of people around Europe. She was also a mayoress of Walthamstow and was very able in bringing her community together.
Edith nods to her friends’ stories…
Coming back to the recipes notebook, Edith helps me understand a principle of care where cooking food and feeding your close ones is matter of education, social configuration and preservation of the community’s traditions. Gusti was born in a well off family, as the first daughter of an industrialist. When her mother died, the father wanted to ensure care of his daughters and married the servant whom the girls loved very much. They also had a son together. However, both the father and the stepmother died well before the girls reaching majority and therefore they were sent to an orphanage. In those times, only male children would inherit a family’s fortune. At the orphanage, Gusti was therefore trained as a servant and learned how to cook. When Edith recounts all this, I can see she is saddened by Gusti’s destiny. “Do you think is right for a girl not to be able to inherit her family’s fortune?” Edith asks me, hopefully rhetorical. And she adds: “In those times you treated servants as family, not like today”. Edith looks me in the eyes searching reassurance that I fairly understand her relation with Gusti and her role.
Within Edit’s family it was the grandmother who made all the cooking for the family. When the grandmother died, Edith’s parents employed Gusti, who was not of Jewish descent. However, at the rise of repression against the Jews, Gusti was forbidden to work in their home. Risking her life, she used to secretly come to the house at night time and dictate her recipes to the two sisters. Nights like this were scenes of joy, singing and storytelling with all the family coming together.
Edith has the same age of my country, Romania. But she is also as old as her own country of birth. When Edith was growing up in Austria, her country was suffering probably its most serious social, political and financial crises. After the First World War and the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, her country was forcefully annexed to Germany. Not only the country was geographically reduced to a part of the German speaking territories loosing many of the agricultural lands, but as an ex enemy, imports were blocked. The following years, Austria experienced continuous political tensions. Food became increasingly scarce close to the Second World War with townspeople near starvation. As in all towns across Europe, food was rationalised and it was common to see long queues of women and children waiting for hours to get something to eat.
It might be impossible for Edith to comment today on how her family was obtaining food in those times, but we all can imagine considering the above. With this in mind, writing and archiving recipes was a matter of capturing a legacy, protecting traditions and histories and probably a way of feeding hope in face of terror. Written in German, the notebook contains short and efficient recipes of meats, salads such as potato, cabbage or beetroot but mostly recipes of…sweets. The notebook is abundant of luxurious creamy cakes, requiring lots of sugar, butter, eggs, vanilla, chocolate and coffee. Trying to picture one of those secret nights, with adults trying to comfort children and comfort themselves in the face of the upcoming tragedy, my imagination tells me those were recipes against pain and fear. Writing about chocolate, vanilla and coffee cakes uplifts the spirt and comforts the heart.
Today I read through Edith’s notebook like I read poetry or as if it was a ‘Anna’s Frank Journal’ of some kind. I feel especially familiar with the recipes that remind me of my Transylvanian grandmother’s cooking and their simplicity is rather fascinating. Food, it’s preparation protocols and preferences for certain ingredients, is absolutely a construct of identity. It reflects our histories, our geographical DNA and presence in time and space. It speaks about our joys and sorrows, about our strengths and weaknesses. It reminds us what we are made of. Reading Edit’s notebook, I like to think Austrian happiness is also written with butter, sugar, chocolate and vanilla.
Written by Anca Doczi Luchian
Many grateful thanks to Anna Gabriella Bond